Board stumbled on Northside

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A collective “Oh my God” must have gone up from top school officials when they saw the results of testing for admission to Northside College Preparatory Academy, a $45 million school going up on the Far North Side. If they accepted students in rank order, the school would be overwhelmingly white. If they abided by the court-sanctioned rules governing other magnet schools, they would have to reject 300 white applicants. Politically, neither would do. So the School Board chose a middle course, accepting white applicants roughly in proportion to the percentage of white students who took the admissions test.

The resulting racial mix for the flagship of Chicago’s emerging college-prep fleet: 52 percent white and 48 percent minority. At best, that proportion is unseemly. Minorities make up 90 percent of enrollment in the Chicago public schools and roughly 78 percent of enrollment in the city’s public and private schools combined. Under the School Board’s desegregation plan, minority students are supposed to make up between 65 percent and 85 percent of enrollment at each magnet school. Northside’s acceptances are especially out of line for African Americans—only 4 percent in a school system that is 55 percent African American.

As Web Site Editor Dan Weissmann reports, the School Board hopes that its selection strategy will carry it between two legal shoals. On the one side is the U.S. Department of Justice, which is charged with enforcing the desegregation plan. On the other are parents of white students who might sue because their children were denied admission to make room for lower-scoring minority students. According to a member of the board’s Desegregation Monitoring Commission, there were 50 such children. In other cities, lawsuits filed by parents of white and Asian children have forced school districts to abandon policies aimed at ensuring a racial mix at highly ranked schools. Against this backdrop, the board was indeed left with a Hobson’s choice—though it’s hard to see how bypassing 50 white kids puts it in a safer legal position than bypassing 300.

However, the board’s dilemma was one of its own making. Instead of setting out to accept students to college prep schools by rank order on test scores—as if a student who scores at the 80th percentile is less able to handle the work than one who scores at the 85th—it could have conducted a lottery among all students who met a reasonable cut-off score. Since white students, as a group, still score higher on standardized tests than Latinos and African Americans do, Northside probably would have accepted proportionately more whites than minorities anyway, but at least the whites who didn’t get in could not complain that the process was not fair. Alternatively, the board could have had one admissions process for several college-prep schools and programs and used race as a factor assigning students to them. At a minimum, the board could have aggressively recruited minority applicants.

At a recent monitoring commission meeting, Chief Executive Office Paul Vallas repeatedly stressed that, unlike previous boards of education, the Reform Board is trying to mount academically challenging programs at schools throughout the city so that there is equal access for all. More than a dozen schools are to have International Baccalaureate programs, and each region is to have a college-prep magnet. However, it’s the two North Side regions that are getting brand-new schools and plenty of time to plan attractive programs. In contrast, three other regions have had or will have existing schools converted virtually over night into college-prep programs. That makes it hard to ensure high quality and, thereby, attract white students to schools in minority communities or middle-class parents of any race. The board may yet expand the number of schools serving racially and economically integrated student bodies, but it’s off to an inauspicious start.